U.S.A. and the Long and Hazardous Struggle for a Biological, Chemical, and Nuclear Free Globe

Article published on Feb. 28, 2011
community published
Article published on Feb. 28, 2011
by Vassilios Damiras In the post Cold War epoch, the United States of America started an extensive and a very expensive program to reduce or even eliminate the dangerous menace of biological warfare, chemical development, and nuclear proliferation. At least three main and important factors underlie this renewed emphasis on proliferation policy and strategy.
First, the reduced military menace from the former Soviet Union has increased the relative importance of lesser powers, especially if armed with weapons of mass destruction. Second, certain international political and technological trends are increasing the threat to international security from proliferation. Third, new opportunities are opening for enhancing the current international regimes designed to severely stem proliferation. Since then the American government has spent more than six hundred million dollars and close to a billion dollars in various biological and chemical threat reduction programs and nuclear nonproliferation projects mainly focused on the former Soviet Union Republics. Specifically, American officials focused in the Asian region of the former and notorious Soviet Empire. This policy involved hard, long, and tough diplomatic negotiations.

The former Soviet Republics has been a real challenge for the various American programs focusing on biological, chemical, and nuclear nonproliferation. The toughest of the situation is because; this specific and troubled region has many serious and insurmountable socio-economic, political, and military challenges. After five years of crucial and tough negotiation between U.S. and Kazakh diplomatic and military officials, a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane under heavy security transported several samples of bubonic and pneumonic plague bacteria from laboratories in Kazakhstan to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, which is located in the State of Colorado. Also both sides mutually agreed that, U.S. and Kazakh chemical and biological scientists will now study the bacteria with the main goal of developing and producing new scientific methods to diagnose and treat the plague.

This specific shipment was part of a larger scheme of cooperative biological threat reduction process between the United States and former Soviet republics in Central Asia. This biological threat reduction has the main purpose and target at protecting against diseases that occur naturally in the region and which could also be exploited by various bioterrorists. In specific terms, several Islamic terrorists or terrorist groups throughout the years have been trying to create a dirty bomb and attack various economic, political, and military installations in Europe, Asia, and in United States. Thus, the U.S. officials are on alert to impede or prohibit that kind of terrorist activities. The bulk of these various projects are funded via the auspices and aegis of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program administered by the U.S. Defense Department. Additionally, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, U.S. Strategic Command USSTRATCOM, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administer projects related to farming, is involved in the project. Later on the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security joined the program. Also the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Coast Guard participated in the various elements of the program.

Created and established in 1991, the CTR Program was an unprecedented effort to significantly aid the disintegrating Soviet Union deal with nuclear, chemical, and biological proliferation threats. The initial focus of the program was on the nuclear weapons inherited by three non-Russian republics (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) and on Russia's nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities. The American officials wanted to control these dangerous and lethal weapons in case rogue nation-states or rogue groups wanted to acquire them and utilized them to destabilize global relations among countries. Four-hundred million dollars were originally allocated for the nuclear-related projects. After the significant success of the denuclearization programs of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, and with a bulk of the most pressing Russian nuclear proliferation threats under controlled or even resolved despite the then Russian President and currently Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin strange behavior toward the United States, CTR crucial efforts turned their focus to dealing with several and serious biothreats that menacing the international affairs. This specific and important shift also illustrates the larger emphasis that nation-states around the globe are placing on the role of harmful and deadly infectious disease surveillance in international security and stability procedures.

The U.S. government has invested more than four hundred and thirty million dollars from 1998 through 2007 in its biological and chemical threat reduction programs, which includes funding for various projects in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. Annual funding levels have been steadily increasing every year. During this period Kazakhstan received roughly $107.4 million for biothreat reduction projects and Uzbekistan received $78.7 million. The spending also significantly increased after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center in New York City and the U.S. Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which were masterminded and executed by the notorious Islamic terrorist group Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden.

Since 1992, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) have been jointly designing and developing projects to considerably improve the safety and security of Russia's nuclear weapons as they are dismantled, transported, and stored at sites throughout Russian proper. Projects have included the delivery to Russia of armored blankets, security upgrade kits for railcars, emergency response equipment, and super containers used during transport.  Ongoing Weapons Protection, Control, and Accounting (WPC&A) several projects include upgrading security at weapons storage sites, providing a computerized weapons stockpile system, exchanging unclassified information about nuclear warheads, and providing a drug and alcohol monitoring program for guards at weapons storage sites. From 1992 through 1997, the DOD allocated $116 million of CTR funds for WPC&A programs. By 2000, total WPC&A funding had reached $293.1 million, and the program's total cost is expected to reach $967.7 by FY2007.

Also, the American officials focused on the region incorporated Central Asia, because Central Asia was once at the center of the Soviet biological warfare program. The world's largest and most vibrant bioweapons military facility, which had a capacity to produce 300 tons of anthrax a year, was situated in northern Kazakhstan in Stepnogorsk. Stepnogorsk was created and established in the 1964, though it is not marked on Soviet maps and it has been variously designated Makinut-2, Tselinograd-25, and Aksu. The area also included and still incorporates a big facility for the extraction of uranium ore associated with the uranium mining areas and deposits are in the north-central region in the Akmola and Kokshetau oblasts of Kazakstan. The Tselinny Gorno-Khimichskii Kombinat (TGK) mines and refinery, centered on the Stepnogorsk district, was at one time the second largest uranium producer in the Soviet Union. Specifically, the center for the manufacture of bacteriological weapons was constructed ten kilometers away from the settlement of Stepnogorsk, a town whose population had grown to over 60,000 by 1989. Building 221 is the heart of the production facility, consisting of three dozen bioreactors with a comprehensive protection system. In late 1990, Biopreparat researchers tested Marburg virus on monkeys and other small animals in special explosion-test chambers at the Stepnogorsk plant.

In addition, during the years of the Cold War, Soviet Chemical scientists extensively tested biological weapons on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea and on Ustyurt Plateau in the Uzbek steppe. The thousands of Soviet biological and chemical scientists who participated in the bioweapons programs worked daily to protect their country against biological or chemical attack or attacks and to ensure that the Soviet Union had bioweapons at its disposal, if necessary in case in a vicious war with the United States.

Under the Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement between America and Kazakhstan, about three million dollars has been granted for the dismantling and elimination of biological and chemical military centers, including the one at Stepnogorsk. In 1998, the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) made three additional awards for projects that include scientists from Kazakhstan's Stepnogorsk defense biological research facility. The Stepnogorsk facility is the focus of a special effort by the American and Kazakh governments to redirect defense scientific and engineering resources to civilian work. The U.S. State Department is providing $210,000 to support these additional projects. Moreover the foundation provides training for various biosecurity measures and detection. Also, CRDF has expanded its chemical biobacterial, and bacteriological research and operations in Albania, Iraq, and Pakistan.

The Vozrozhdeniye (Renaissance or Rebirth) Island test site in the Aral Sea was part of the older, military biological warfare system. The island was apparently chosen for open-air testing of biological weapons because of its geographical isolation. Vozrozhdeniye is located in the middle of the Aral Sea, surrounded by large, sparsely populated deserts and semi-deserts that hindered unauthorized access to the secret site. The island's sparse vegetation, hot, dry climate, and sandy soil that reaches temperatures of 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) in summer all reduced the chances that pathogenic microorganisms would survive and spread. In addition, the insular location prevented the transmission of pathogens to neighboring mainland areas by animals or insects. The northern part of Vozrozhdeniye Island, which Kazakhs call Mergensay, is on Kazakhstani territory. The southern two-thirds of the island is in the Karakalpak autonomous region of Uzbekistan.

In 1936, Vozrozhdeniye Island was transferred to the authority of the Soviet Ministry of Defense for use by the Red Army's Scientific Medical Institute. The first expedition of one hundred people, headed by Professor Ivan Velikanov, arrived on the island that summer. The researchers were provided with special ships and two airplanes and reportedly conducted experiments involving the spread of tularemia and related microorganisms. In the fall of 1937, however, the expedition was evacuated from the island because of serious security problems, including the arrest of Velikanov and other specialists.

In 1952, the Soviet government decided to resume biological warfare testing on islands in the Aral Sea. A biological weapons test site, officially referred to as "Aralsk-7," was built in 1954 on Vozrozhdeniye and Komsomolskiy Islands. The Ministry of Defense's Field Scientific Research Laboratory (PNIL) was stationed on Vozrozhdeniye Island to conduct the experiments. Military unit 25484, comprising several hundred people, was also based on the island and reported to a larger unit based in Aralsk. The PNIL developed methods of biological defense and decontamination for Soviet troops. Samples of military hardware, equipment, and protective clothing reportedly passed field tests at the island before being mass-produced. During the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, military protective gear developed for Afghan conditions was tested at the PNIL.

Currently, a comprehensive epizootological study of Vozrozhdeniye Island funded and supported by the United States and operated by the Uzbek Center for Prevention and Quarantine, is a significant and very vital addition to indigenous disease surveillance campaigns on the island: Kazakh and Uzbek biological and chemical scientists presently monitor the island for plague and other biological diseases, beyond anthrax, that might have been introduced to the island during Soviet times and could easily spread to the mainland through rodents. The dramatic shrinking of the Aral Sea in recent years further exacerbates the proliferation risks PDF if pathogens remain and sustain on Vozrozhdeniye Island. Birds and rodents are potential carriers of dangerous diseases to the mainland, as are people who visit the island proper in search of several pieces of scrap metal.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the defense and civilian biological weapons programs were thrown into a serious crisis. By 1992, the new regime in Moscow had abandoned most military and civilian sites related to the programs, and governments in the newly independent republics faced the challenge of dealing with their lethal inheritance. Facilities housing collections of deadly pathogens and microorganisms were left either poorly protected or completely unprotected and vulnerable to theft. The military program abandoned Vozrozhdeniye Island, which had been used as a fabrication and testing ground for biological and chemical weapons, leaving caches of anthrax buried underground and other dangerous microorganisms present in its soil. Thus, the abandonment of biological and chemical waste created for Russia and the wider region a serious and dangerous environmental hazard.

Furthermore, after the Cold War the Russian Federation did not have money to pay their scientists. Thus, thousands of scientists with critical and crucial expertise lost their jobs went unpaid or received meager salaries insufficient to support their families. Moreover, the region had to face with continual outbreaks of highly and dangerous infectious disease, to which it was naturally prone due to serious and catastrophic contamination. Coupled with a serious socioeconomic and political crisis and Central Asia's close proximity to unstable states such as, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Soviet bioweapons heritage posed several crucial challenges. Central Asian new independent governments were unaware of the activities took place inside the most sensitive chemical and nuclear facilities involved in the Soviet biological and chemical military program. The resources that the Central Asian governments could allocate to conversion activities were extremely limited, making CTR funding crucial and very important. The United States and Kazakhstan first signed a cooperative threat nuclear and chemical reduction agreement in 1993, to provide for assistance with denuclearization. The agreement was extended in 2000 to further the U.S. assistance in the threat reduction. In Uzbekistan, American cooperation began much later. The initial umbrella agreement was negotiated and signed in 2001.

During the first decade of cooperative biological threat reduction programs, U.S. efforts focused on totally dismantling and even eliminating bioweapons facilities and destroying bioweapons agents in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the regions where most key biofacilities were concentrated. By 2000, three key Stepnogorsk buildings were destroyed, while the full greenfielding of the weapons production and testing buildings was dismantled by 2007. In addition, CTR funds also significantly improved the physical protection, safety, and security of the facilities that housed dangerous bio and chemical-agents. The destruction and extensive elimination of bioweapons facilities on Vozrozhdeniye Island and 150 tons of anthrax in 2002 was followed by the decontamination of the Uzbek part of the island where Soviet military facilities were formally situated.

The extensive biothreat reduction process in Central Asia has since reached a qualitatively different and a very positive stage. While initial projects dealt mostly with dismantlement, destruction, and elimination, ongoing work emphasizes cooperation and collaborative research with the various regional nation-states. Central Asian scientists are working hard with their U.S. counterparts to strengthen detection and diagnosis of disease outbreaks and to considerable improve the response and reaction to numerous natural epidemics and potential hazardous bio-attacks. For example, a significant amount of funding was given to support Kazakh epidemiological various research and studies of Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever, as well as specific studies on factors of anthrax foci. Furthermore, the CTR program PDF also funds Uzbek biological and chemical scientists working on epizootiological and epidemiological mapping of anthrax, plague, and tularaemia, as well as the surveillance of human and animal brucellosis.

In another important project, Kazakh bioscientists successfully mapped and completed the genetic fingerprinting of ninety three strains of anthrax found in Kazakhstan. Alongside with their Georgian colleagues, these scientists also jointly diagnosed a case of avian influenza and diagnosed and identified the source of an outbreak of Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever--a tick, in Uzbekistan. Furthermore, Kazakh chemical scientists from the Republic Sanitary Epidemiological Station in a joint program from relevant research institutes are designing, developing, and implementing a comprehensive study of brucellosis in southern region of Kazakhstan. This study is especially significant from a public health standpoint since there is a high incidence rate of brucellosis among the animal and human population in the country; it is highest in the areas bordering with China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The ongoing project will able scientists to diagnose brucellosis within a two-hour to one-day period instead of the current forty eight-hour to twelve-day span.

Several recent chemical reduction projects promise to further help counter highly infectious diseases in the region. The United States intends to give funding to research by the Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases in Almaty on especially dangerous pathogens. A contract of $800,000 was allocated to Kazakhstan's Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems in Otar to start working and analyzing on an avian influenza virus. The project commenced in 2007. The purpose of the project is to extensively monitor avian flu agents among wild and domestic birds, as well as among people with a high risk of contracting the disease (e.g. employees of battery farms, medical workers, and hunters) and to study and analyze the virus's biological properties. An important spin-off effect of similar chemical projects sponsored by internationally funded programs is that participating chemical facilities often receive up-to-date technology, which allows the scientists to work on new innovative scientific studies. The Research Institute of Virology in Uzbekistan received $800,000 for the study of arbovirus infections in the South Aral region.

Together with the United States, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other former Soviet republics are designing, developing, and operating an extensive network of surveillance and diagnostic labs. The labs are connected with an Electronic Integrated Disease Surveillance System via various epidemiological monitoring stations. Kazakhstan already owns and operates two biological monitoring stations; Uzbekistan, six; Georgia, four; and Azerbaijan, one. Once collected and gathered, integrated human and veterinary surveillance data is sent off in near-real time to national and U.S. counterparts’ biological and chemical facilities.

In 2011, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program overarching purpose and mission is to partner with willing nation-states to reduce the serious threat of nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related biological and nuclear technologies, expertise, and materials. Furthermore, this specific program aims the dismantling and destruction of the various Soviet-era nuclear weapons such as, the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) SS-18 and SS-19, the several types of the Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs), the various types of the Long Range Ballistic Missiles (LRBMs), the numerous Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and their respective silos and the associated Launch Control Center (LCC). Also, the program targets to eliminate all the mobile launchers. Moreover, this project eliminates Submarine Launch Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and the launchers from Delta class and Typhoon class Russian Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs).

The aforementioned program expands the U.S. Department of Defense Security Assessment and Training Center (SATC) at Abramovo base to serve as the regional training and sustainment center. The SATC will compliment the Far East Training Center (FETC). The new center will provide a classroom building, student dormitory, maintenance and repair workshop, warehouse, garage, and associated equipment for MOD-R. Also, the program gives money for safe and secure weapons transpiration with special equipped cars with highly sophisticated monitor equipment. Also, it allocates money for secure rail transportation. The transportation part of the project comes under the agreement Nuclear Weapons Transportation Security Implementing Agreement.

The chemical and biological threat reduction part of the agreement focuses on especially dangerous pathogens (EDPs). It allocates money for improving the biological safety and security (BS&S). Furthermore, this program considerable enhances the capabilities of partner nation-states to detect, report, and interdict illicit trafficking in various hazardous and menacing WMD or related bacteriological life threatening materials. This kind of viable cooperation between America and the Central Asian republics are very vital and important for their own regional security, wider regional security, and global stability.

In addition, in 2011, the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency introduced the Caspian Sea Maritime Proliferation Prevention (Azerbaijan). This counter biological and chemical project supports and assists the development of a comprehensive capability to detect and interdict life threatening WMD and related biological and chemical weapons or agents along Azerbaijan maritime border on the Caspian Sea. It supplies maritime surveillance equipment and procedures; repair and upgrade of existing naval vessels; modern equipment for boarding crews; including high sophisticated devices to detect various biological and chemical WMD; the construction, repair, and upgrade of command and control maintenance, and various logistics facilities; and construction of a highly technological and sophisticated operating location along Azerbaijan southern coast to improve the on-station time and expand the operational patrol areas of the state border service-Coast Guard.

Since the very early days of their strong cooperation with the United States, the Central Asian nation-states have demonstrated high degree of openness and an extensive transparency. If political and military will prevail and all sides overcome old and archaic bureaucratic behavior and implementation hurdles that occur along the way, the cooperative threat reduction process will continue to not only strengthen public health and biodefense capacities and capabilities but also serve the larger purpose of building a strong trust between Washington and the various Central Asian governments. Thus, it is imperative the United States to continue assisting and monitoring the situation in the region. If the United States withdrawn the anti-biological and anti-chemical projects will collapse making easier for terrorists to find a way and manufacture a dirty bomb. The American government must continue the policy of establishing tough obstacles for countries of acquiring chemical, biological, and nuclear agents. It is mandatory to control these dangerous and extremely hazardous chemical, biological, biobacterial, bacteriological, and nuclear agents if the United States wants global stability.

 Vassilios Damiras is a Defense Consultant in the United States.